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PRINT January 2020

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View of “Henri Matisse,” 2019–, Museum of Modern Art, New York. From left: Henri Matisse, The Red Studio, 1911; Alma Thomas, Fiery Sunset, 1973. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar.

IN 1980, I logged a series of firsts: my first flight on an airplane; my first trip to New York (from Los Angeles); my first visit to the Museum of Modern Art. It was all things modern. Everything was new to me.

I was there for the Picasso retrospective, but really only to see Guernica, 1937, before it was shipped off to Spain for good. At the time, no other work in the museum’s collection could have inspired such a journey. I’ve read that Guernica was Faith Ringgold’s favorite Picasso, too. Since then, I’ve been to the museum many times. Some days, when I lived in Harlem, I would visit just for a moment to see Wifredo Lam’s 1943 painting The Jungle, which hung off the lobby near the coat check. (No admission required.)

On more extended explorations, my typical pattern of looking is to bounce around the collection, pinball style, ricocheting from touchstone to touchstone, occasionally bumping up against captivating surprises and avoiding the dead zones until overload and fatigue drive me to a bench for a little bit of rest.

View of “Around Les demoiselles d’Avignon,” 2019–, Museum of Modern Art, New York. From left: Faith Ringgold, American People Series #20: Die,1967; Pablo Picasso, Repose, 1908; Pablo Picasso, Fruit Dish, 1908–1909; Pablo Picasso, Head of a Sleeping Woman (Study for Nude with Drapery), 1907; Pablo Picasso, Two Nudes, 1906. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar.

In the new new MoMA, the bench seems to be more than just a perch on which to take a load off. In at least two cases that got my attention, the benches mark the presence of Black artists in unexpected places, as if to suggest, You might need to sit down for a minute to get a handle on this.

I recently saw a photograph from sixteen years ago, the last time MoMA was new. Picasso’s “iconic” Les demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, hung in the center of its gallery wall, flanked by smaller works of his from the same period, but without a bench. This time, the painting hangs adjacent to a wall occupied by Ringgold’s American People Series #20: Die, 1967, and both have benches. In a nearby gallery, Matisse’s The Red Studio, 1911, is also paired with the work of a Black female painter: Fiery Sunset, 1973, by Alma Thomas. Here, too, is a bench. It’s important to think about the chronological gaps separating these works when considering these new proximities.

These benches are both bridges to distant times and places—Ringgold’s New York and Thomas’s Washington, DC, and France, sixty and sixty-two years ago, respectively—and links in a tangled chain of ideas, precedents, and responses that make museumgoing still worth the while. 

Kerry James Marshall is an artist based in Chicago.